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Carbonated is what I call what I feel like on days like today, when all my muscles seem to have bubbles in them and I find it hard to sit still and concentrate.  When this happens when I’m trying to work, work becomes impossible.  Today I got lucky, and work went fine.  I didn’t start feeling carbonated until later.

All of this is by way of saying that I’m a little scattered today, and that may become obvious as I get to what’s coming.

What I wanted to do was to respond to another e-mail coment by Robert, and one that goes bac to a number of the themes I’ve been going on about for a while.  The comment goes like that:


It’s worth keeping in mind that all the good theoretical monsters from Rousseau through Pol Pot seem to have had pretty good educations. Try Rousseau, Robespierre, Marx, Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler Mao Castro and Pol Pot. Some invented their systems and some implemented those devised by others, but they were all well grounded in the humanities. Hitler might have been the worst for formal education, but he was a pretty fair autodidact. Except for Mao, who was influenced by it, all have to be placed in the Western tradition, but it never keeps the corpses from piling up. The old joke in Economics is that it doesn’t matter if last year’s test questions leak: the professors keep the questions, but change the answers. The knowledge you share with these people has not brought them to your conclusions.
For that matter, consider the followers. No, the philosophers of death and oppression don’t emphasize the less savory consequences of their proposals–but that just gives them something in common with seekers after public office, surgeons and sellers of physic. At some point, even the dullest henchman discovers that the will of the people means strapping three year old girls to benches so they can be guillotined, that the dictatorship of the proletariat means whole nations disappearing into the Gulag, and that racial solidarity involves gassing babes in arms. How many then say, “if this is where my belief system leads, I’ll have none of it?” Some, but very few. (For that matter, read of the Fabians’ excitement and joy at Lenin and Stalin, and you have a pretty fair notion of where they would have taken Britain had they been able.)
Articulate why the Western tradition does not lead you where it led them, and I believe you’ll find a choice not based on scholarship, whch means better scholarship won’t prevent the next ones.
Let me try to fix my scatteredness by doing this out by points. 
1) The first big problem I have with the above is that  it ignores the obvious.   The Western tradition has indeed produced Marx, but it’s also produced Adam  Smith, John Locke and  Thomas Jefferson.  The tradition is not a conclusion, it’s a process, a habit of mind. 
And that habit of mind–the life of the mind, as it’s usually put–is the greatest, strongest, and most productive tool ever invented by human beins.  And like all great and productive tools, it can be used for things that are not good as well as for things that are good.  The hammer doesn’t become unworthy of use because some people will use it to bash in their spouse’s skulls instead of fix the porch step.
What’s more, without the Humanities, the world might lack Marx, but it would certainly lack the United States of America, because the US was founded by Humanists on the basis of what they had learned from and expanded on in the Humanities. 
Without the Humanities, there would be neither democracy nor the free enterprise system, and there would be nothing at all in the way of individual rights.
2) The study of the Humanities isn’t supposed to lead to moral and political conclusions, any more than the study of physics is.  There are Humanists who have embraced collectivism, totalitarianism and genocide, and there are plenty of natural scientists who have done the same. 
The problem here is the continuing insistence that the ‘point” of studying the Humanities should be virtue or democracy or some other “good” outcome.  But the point of studying the Humanities is the same as the point of studying the Sciences–because the  material is there to be studied.  It is an integral part of life on this earth.  It’s worthy of study because it exists. Period.
I wonder how much the resistance to this idea–to the idea that the Humanities constitute a field of study worthy of consideration in itself, without reference to practical aims–is a leftover of a pre-scientific, pre-Renaissance vision of the status of scholarship, and how much is the habitual American insistance that everything be “pragmatic.”
Physicists want to know how subatomic particles work because the particles are there and they want to know.  If there’s some practical application of that somewhere, they don’t really care. 
I study the Humanities because it’s there and I want to know how it works.  It doesn’t require any more justification than that.
3) What the people Robert doesn’t like above actually had in common was not a groudning in the Humanities (which is iffy in some of the cases, especially Stalin’s, and which they share with people like Ayn Rand), but a particular and rather peculiar habit of mind.
It’s the habit of mind that Paul Johnson is really talking about when he divides “intellectuals” from “men of letters,” making all the intellectuals he likes–like Kipling–not really intellectuals at all.
The habit of mind shared by Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and, yes, Peter Snger, Noam Chomsky and that idiot lawyer whose name I’ve forgotten who responded by reports of the killing fields of Cambodia by saying “I do not criticize socialist governments,” is essentially theological.
Hegel sst out to replace God with History, he ended up turning History into God.  Since then, not a single one of his intellectual descendants has deviated from the course, until very recently, when a bunch of them have been deifying “science.”
The problem with theology is that, when you’re dealing with the Word of  God and there’s a conflict with reality, you must always give up reality in favor of God. 
Theology was once called the “queen of the scienes,” and starting in the middle ages it had a firm place at the very center of the Humanities.  In fact, Humanism was defined, originally, as theology that concentrated on the relationship of God and man (instead of on the attributes of God alone).
I’m more than willing to accept that theological thinking is a Really  Bad Idea, but I’m not giving up the Humanities.
The  Humanities are what told me that theological thinking was a bad idea, and what provided the only alternative to that way of thinking that had ever existed on earth.

Written by janeh

April 26th, 2009 at 10:12 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Carbonated'

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  1. I didn’t propose that you–or anyone–give up humanities. And I never in the least implied that study of the Western tradition only bred monsters. I’m saying that a thorough grounding in the humanities does not seem to produce by itself a worthwhile ethical code. This doesn’t mean they’re not worth studying: it means they aren’t sufficient, even for the questions which ought by some reasoning to be within their purview–“What is the good?” “What are my obligations to my family or my community?” If you want to explain why you do good when you won’t get credit, and avoid doing evil even when you won’t get caught, education is not enough.

    And I very carefully excluded Stalin from my monster list precisely because I wasn’t satisfied with his education. I will stipulate that there are a great many evil people with poor educations. That was not my point.

    Please note that for all the talk of these people being “theological” the first step in organizing a first-rate massacre is to leave out of the Western tradition a pesky personal God who disapproves of murder, doesn’t think I should covet my neighbor’s property, and in fact insists that I should love my neighbor. The problem with Christians is that we often fail to live up to the standard set by our belief. The problem with the people I named is that they DID live up to the standard set by their beliefs.


    26 Apr 09 at 12:30 pm

  2. “Try Rousseau, Robespierre, Marx, Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler Mao Castro and Pol Pot.”

    I would suggest that what they have in common is lumping eveyone into “society” and a belief that they know how to fix the problems of “society”.

    And a willingness to kill any one who doesn’t agree whith their fix.


    26 Apr 09 at 5:43 pm

  3. There’s something in the idea that making idols of things in this world is a Very Bad Idea – what Jane calls theological thinking. I can think I am above society, and that I know how to ‘fix’ society (in fact, I do think I know of many ways in which society can and should be improved). But once you elevate your opinion of how society should be fixed into the position of a deity, you’re in big trouble – or going to cause big trouble – because it’s all too easy to decide that you are justified in using force on the people who are obviously sub-human idiots because they disagree with yout. And you don’t have any co-religionists or priests or sacred texts that might bring it to your attention that it it immoral to use force in such cases.

    The human tendency to think that we are right, that others will not only understand our views but aggree, and that anyone who doesn’t should be eliminated in universal and found within religions, too, of course. But based on the history of the last hundred years or so, I think the crowd that worship political systems or some fantasy of a purified or perfected human being are far more dangerous that those who worship a God – even if I also don’t agree with a lot of the theists either.


    26 Apr 09 at 6:04 pm

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